Until recently, Orange County was selling $500,000 worth of recyclable material to Sonoco, a global provider of packaging products and services. But recycled goods are only profitable if collecting and reusing curbside collected waste is cheaper than making the goods out of “virgin materials,” such as trees or petroleum.
Starting this month, Sonoco has stopped paying the county for metals, plastics and mixed paper.
“It is unfortunate that markets are so depressed right now that collectors of recyclables will be getting diminished revenue, and in order to keep our programs running in the county, we will have to make some decisions about waste management,” said Blair Pollock, a solid waste planner for the Orange County Department of Solid Waste Management.
The solid waste department had a budget of $11.4 million for fiscal year 2015-16, of which nearly $5.5 million went to recycling. The $500,000 that Sonoco pays the county government represents 10 percent of the recycling budget, and while it is not currently clear exactly how much less the company will be paying, the suspension represents a hit to the local green industry.
Officials ranging from local governments to multinational businesses are skeptical about whether the decrease in commodity prices will adversely affect the recycling economy.
“I don’t think just because gas is cheaper companies will use recyclables less,” said Steve Brantley, director of the Orange County economic development office.
Brantley might be right as the Greensboro-based multinational company Unifi Inc. is planning to increase its use of recycled materials.
Unifi purchases bottle flakes made out of plastic bottles to manufacture their REPREVE recycled fiber.
“While some companies like Sonoco may be decreasing their purchases of recycled materials, Unifi is actually increasing our purchases of recycled materials.” said Roger Berrier, president and chief operating officer of Unifi.
Unifi receives its plastic from curbside plastic collection that makes its way to a material recycling facility, where it’s then cleaned and chopped into plastic flakes. These flakes are melted and formed into the REPREVE yarn, which can be found in a Denali jacket from The North Face, or even the graduation gowns worn by our graduates here at UNC, Berrier said.
Here in North Carolina, 30 percent of waste is recycled, said Pollock.
“But (Unifi) is the green supply strain,” he said. “They are the counter-current (to the drop in recyclable sales).”